Last week David Brooks published a column in The New York Times called “The Orthodox Surge.” Like most David Brooks columns, its broad generalizations, sloppy analysis, and saccharine romanticization of its topic drove me crazy. Unlike most David Brooks columns, however, I happen to have some expertise on the topic about which he was writing. After spending almost a decade in a musty library writing a dissertation in the field of Jewish Studies, it irritated me a little more than usual that Brooks wrote something so obviously uninformed after an afternoon of “research” in an upscale grocery store.
Dvora Meyers weighed in on Jewcy about both the silliness and the danger of romanticizing the Orthodox Jewish community Brooks writes about, and I agree that this is a huge problem with the column. His sense that modern Orthodoxy is “rooted in that deeper sense of collective purpose” while “those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given” sets up a false dichotomy between the virtuous, purpose-driven religious and the rest of us poor schmos with nothing to prevent us from falling into a the den of hedonistic pleasures that is the modern world.
But even more dangerously, Brooks’ comments about modern Orthodoxy and Jewish life in general are made in a historical vacuum that basically ignores the multivalent forms of Jewish identity and culture that have defined Judaism since the haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, of the late 18th century. Brooks betrays a childish nostalgia for something that never existed: a pure or authentic form of Jewish life that will somehow point the way forward through the darkness of modernity.
Orthodox Judaism is as much a product of modernity as the Reform movement or secularism. In the 19th century, as the forces of modernization and enlightenment transformed European Judaism, spawning new religious, cultural, social, and political forms, conservative religious forces created their own movement in response: modern Orthodoxy. In opposition to the forces of reform, the new Orthodox movement declared itself the true arbiter of religious Jewish life, defining the precise mode and method of adherence to Jewish laws and customs whose observance had often varied widely across the broad geographic spread of Jewish residence in Europe. Although modern Orthodoxy, and to an even greater extent ultra-Orthodoxy (also a modern invention), presents itself in the humble garb of authenticity, it is no more and no less “real” Judaism than the Reform movement, born in Hamburg, Germany in 1817.
Likewise, the secular culture Brooks derides, at least secular Jewish culture, which is what I assume he was talking about, is also rooted in the modernizing movements of nineteenth-century Europe, and has a long and honorable tradition in Judaism. In a 1910 article, the Hebrew writer Yosef Chaim Brenner suggested that one need not continue to be Jewish, in a religious sense, in order to be Jewish in a cultural, communal, and national sense. Brenner wrote that modern, secular, freethinking Jews like himself “have nothing to do with Judaism, and we are nonetheless part of the Jewish community (klal) no less than those who lay tefillin (phylacteries) and wear tzitzit (ritual fringes).” This sparked a furious debate in the Hebrew press about the nature of modern Jewish identity, which itself casts doubt on the idea of an authentic, originary Judaism.
In fact, if there is anything authentically Jewish about any of this, it is the very multivalence and variety of Jewish life not only in the modern period, but in every era and in every place Jews have lived. There is an old joke about a Jewish guy who gets stranded on a desert island. When he’s finally rescued, after many years of surviving on his own in this remote place, he takes his rescuers on a tour of everything he’s built on the island in his long sojourn there alone. He shows them the hut that he lives in, his cooking area, the tools he’s created to help him hunt and eat, and even the synagogue he’s built to worship in. Then one of the rescue party speaks up. “What’s that building over there?” he asks, and everyone turns to look. “Oh that,” the Jewish man says derisively, “that’s the other shul. I wouldn’t be caught dead there.”
I doubt I’d be caught dead in the synagogue of David Brooks’ imagination, but that doesn’t make me any less Jewish, nor does it make him less so in my estimation. Beginning in the nineteenth century there were parties and movements of Jewish Marxists, socialists, Yiddishists, Hebraists, Zionists, autonomists, and probably a hundred other things I’ve never even heard of; in the United States and around the world, at this very minute, there are people worshipping in Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal synagogues, in independent minyans and on mountaintops; if Brooks had taken the subway across town to the Upper West Side he could have dropped in on Mechon Hadar, a traditional, egalitarian yeshiva, or gone downtown and visited the offices of the Arbeter Ring, a Yiddishist group that promotes social justice. Given all this past and present diversity, I very much doubt what Brooks characterizes as the self-confident assertion of modern Orthodoxy that it is the future.
In fact, it is the uncritical acceptance of modern Orthodoxy, or any one aspect of Jewish life, as the representative of authentic Judaism that does the greatest disservice to the Jewish future, and is a far greater problem than the supposed hedonistic individuality of “secular America.” Judaism is not monolithic, and visualizing it in those terms just isn’t very Jewish at all.